Published on April 26th, 2023 | by MC Bravado0
Happy Endings: Raphaela Nehme is a Citizen of the World with a Story to Tell
From Ottawa to Lebanon to Ottawa again, Raphaela Nehme is as well-traveled as she is talented. The singer-songwriter and instrumentalist fuses literary influence from an Emily Henry novel into her latest offering, “Happy Endings” a Modern Pop and Acoustic single that has seen her accumulating momentum as of late. While Raphaela is a gifted storyteller who can craft an infectious record, it’s her ability to emote on wax that stands out to me the most. Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Raphaela to discuss all things good:
Every hero has an origin story, tell me yours:
Although music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, I think my origin story when it comes to taking it seriously would be – like many – during the pandemic, when I felt depressed/sad and needed something to help me see the light at the end of the tunnel. That was music for me, I vividly remember waking up from a nap, angry at the world, and at someone who was making my life more difficult than it should be at the time, and I decided in a split second that I would go buy a recording kit to film song covers at home and post them to my YouTube channel on a weekly basis. And that’s what I did.
If we are talking about my love for songwriting, then that would be when I was 13 and 14 and was sad because my first real crush liked someone else… so naturally I thought to myself why don’t I try to write my feelings out, I did that and it became like a therapeutic process for me, instead of overthinking about a specific situation, I would freeze it in the form of a song and revisit it when I needed to let my feelings out.
I love how you articulated the nature of song therapy and can definitely relate. I would love to hear anything you’d like to divulge about growing up in Lebanon: early years, youthful aspirations, etc.
I was born in Ottawa, but my parents are Lebanese. My mom hated the cold and was homesick, so they moved back to Lebanon when I was still a baby and I grew up there until the age of 19 when I moved back to Ottawa for university studies.
Growing up in Lebanon was a fun but stressful time, I can say that confidently now that I haven’t been there in a few years and can look back objectively on my formative years there. I was lucky to be able to pursue all passions, such as music, horseback riding, and even acting at some point, but any Lebanese person will tell you, the scary driving situation, the relentless political tension, and the difficulty to live a stable life there (which has now escalated to a full-blown financial crisis in recent years) definitely takes a toll on you, even as a child.
However, growing up there allowed me to develop a multicultural baggage and strong language skills, which have ultimately proved useful to my journey as an independent singer/songwriter. My youthful aspirations always ebbed and flowed between either becoming a professional singer/songwriter, an actress, or a journalist/TV presenter. My favorite musical of all time is The Phantom of the Opera, so when I first watched it at 10 years old and fell in love with it, for the better part of a year, I would come back home every day, put it on, and act out/sing the role of Christine Daae.
Tell me about your life after your move at 19. How did things change?
I always knew I wanted to move back, either to Canada or to the US because I always felt like an “alien” in Lebanon, not identifying with a culture where Arabic music is dominant, especially if I wanted to make it as a songwriter who wrote English songs. At 19 I moved back to Ottawa by myself to pursue my university studies and I kind of gave up on music for a while because I was told enough times that it wasn’t ‘realistic’ that I convinced myself I should give up on it. I was still writing songs at the time, but I just thought I wasn’t good enough and that my voice was not good enough. Flash forward to the pandemic, when I was at my lowest point, and I had an epiphany moment when I decided that I was going to do something about my sadness/depression so I decided to buy a recording kit and start posting weekly covers on my YouTube channel. A few months later I was confident enough to start writing my songs once more and met the producer I would go on to start recording my first 3 singles with namely, “Fifth Street”, “South of France”, and now “Happy Endings”.
Can you trace the origins of your love of music to a specific moment, record, or artist?
My love for music is deeply tied to my roots, and my musical influences as a child. My mum is an opera singer so music was always a part of our household. I started taking music lessons when I was Seven years old. I played piano, but I got bored with it after a few years and decided to stop. At 13 years old, my best friend (whose name is also Rafaela) showed me some chords she learned to play on the guitar. So I learned some chords with her and went from there. That was also around the time when I discovered Taylor Swift who was starting to become popular. The first song I listened to by her was “Teardrops on My Guitar.” I remember seeing this singer with curly hair like me writing her own songs. And it kind of inspired me to be like, well, why don’t I try to do the same? So I locked myself in my room for a whole summer. I taught myself to play and sing at the same time. And I went through my first heartbreak with a former crush, so I decided to write my first song about that. Songwriting became a thing for me, and when I was fourteen, I started recording an EP composed of seven songs. Luckily enough, I had the support of my parents to start recording my own music.
I’m not shy about saying we’re in an era where music is beyond saturated. What separates Raphaela Nehme from essentially everything else out there? Both musically and in terms of your overall approach and makeup as an artist:
First, I bring with me a multicultural baggage that I think is rarely seen in Pop/Country music. I am able to write/sing in 3 languages (French, English, Arabic) although I don’t particularly enjoy it – I would rather stick with English – and I like to think of myself as having taken the best of both worlds when it comes to the Lebanese/Canadian culture and incorporated them into my authentic self/artist. I hope I am able to become the first Lebanese artist to make an impact in the pop/country music scene.
I also write from the heart and I try to be as vulnerable as I can in my singing and songwriting, although I am still learning to open myself up and share more of that vulnerability with the world. As a singer, and with the help of coaches like my vocal coach Diana Sharp, I have learned that sometimes singing “less” can reach listeners more than any melodic run could.
I also like to think of myself as a true professional and a go-getter with strong ethics. When I put my mind to something, nothing will stray me away from it, even if I fail. I think that hopefully separates me from other artists who might be amazing but will maybe fall short sometimes of doing what it takes to get “there.”
As for my style as an artist, I am still trying to find it! I love girly/classy clothes and country boots, and I love a good eyeshadow and cat eye, but I think I am still searching for that distinctive style where people will see me wear something and think “oh yea that’s Raphaela.” Recently I watched the series “Daisy Jones & The Six” and I absolutely loved the character Daisy Jones’ Hippie, flowy style, and her wavy hair with curtain bangs. I don’t think I could pull off that style, but it definitely got me thinking that I have to find out soon enough what best represents me as an artist when it comes to clothes.
I definitely notice your attention to branding and appreciate it. Beyond aesthetics, do you garner comparisons regularly to a specific artist(s)? How would you describe yourself stylistically? Furthermore, how would you describe your genre(s) and how you reside there?
I have definitely been compared to Taylor Swift more than any other artists out there right now, especially with my latest release “Happy Endings,” which I anticipated it would, because as soon as I wrote this song, I felt like in an ideal world, it might have fit on her “lover” album when it comes to the cozy/romantic/bittersweet feeling I was trying to highlight in that song. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Lara Fabian, whom I have been compared to especially when I sing her hit single “Je t’aime” in French. It’s almost like my voice takes on a sweeter/more affectionate tone when I sing in French, and even my technique feels more effortless for some reason, although my preference is writing/singing in English.
As for my own genre, I think naturally took a quick path from Country, to Alt-)op, to now a more Pop/Country sound. For example, with “Fifth Street”, we wanted to establish my identity as a pop/country artist. We aimed for a song that had full band sounds and signature country elements.
I knew that the second one – South of France – would be different from that and would need more pop sounds in it, and I credit my producer Jason Wilkinson with the experimental alt-pop/country direction it took which was different from what I initially envisioned, but ultimately loved.
Then for the third, I knew I didn’t want the classic country sounds nor the experimental direction of the second, so I naturally opted for what felt right for the song–A mix of country and pop sounds that would embody the sweet, cozy and romantic mood I had felt while reading Book Lovers. After hearing the finished product, I realized how much I loved that sound–I could see myself releasing more songs that had a similar feel to it.
I am someone who loves to dream. I’ve always been a dreamer, so productions that encapsulate and make listeners feel that type of way as well are what I dream of creating more of! I mean “dreaming” is not really a genre, but I see production as a tool to make my listeners feel a type of way when listening to my song, rather than having to always try to fit in a predetermined box. Obviously, I don’t want to stray too far away from that pop/country sound I’m aiming for, but I also don’t want to be chained by it if I find that song would benefit from different sounds.
More in this vein, can you elaborate on your uncertainty regarding writing songs in Arabic and your current preference for writing in English? Please dive into more detail about wrestling with comfort levels of writing and recording in English/owning that all the way:
For some reason, even though I grew up in Lebanon and spoke Arabic most of the time, I never enjoyed actually reading Arabic literature or listening to Arabic music or Lebanese pop songs, except for very few famous acts who found their way to my heart such as Marwan Khoury and Carole Semaha, both masters at evoking vulnerability and tenderness through their singing.
Somehow, as soon as I discovered English novels, TV shows & films, I naturally gravitated towards consuming more of them and with time became more comfortable expressing myself through that language. Even in school, I always got the best grades writing English essays, and not so much with Arabic ones. I can’t explain it better than I think the language chose me and that probably had something to do with my personality too. I mean, at 10 years old I knew I didn’t want to live in Lebanon after I turned 18. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m naturally introverted and sensitive, and the Lebanese culture is loud and expressive, something I am not, except through my music. I always had a feeling who I am at my core would be more appreciated in a country like Canada or the USA. I think for the most part I’ve been right about that feeling. So, writing in English is my comfort zone, the best tool I find through which I can express myself best, and naturally, that extends to recording and performing music as well.
Beautifully put. Shifting from where we reside in space, would you rather hit the timewarp and reside in another time/era of music? Or do you think you’re right where you’re supposed to be?
Even though I find piercing through the music industry difficult at this time, I still think I am right where I am supposed to be, because I would not have had the same tools I have at my disposal right now when it comes to promoting music had I lived in another era of music. I think the 70s would’ve probably been too intense for me, although they were the golden age for music, and when it comes to actually being a recording artist, it would’ve been probably been even more difficult in the 2000s, because for the most part, you still needed a record label to back you up, and these deals are not handed often. Even when they are, it doesn’t always mean that you are going to make it big. The only thing I wish was that I had had confidence in myself to pursue this path earlier, so I would’ve had more songs and accomplishments under my belt right now, but I can’t change the past and I think we all have our own journey to follow and realizations to make before we venture down this beautiful thing called the music industry.
Back to space…Highs, lows, pros, and cons of your local music scene:
First things first, Ottawa is the Capital City of Canada and it is a government city, so right from the get-go, you are not going to get as many opportunities to showcase your talent to key players in the music industry because they are simply not here. However, obviously, with social media and a post-pandemic world, barriers have broken down and there are more opportunities to reach these people by making an impact online. Now, the good thing about Ottawa is because the local music scene is so small, it is easier to get your name out there and grow bigger here quicker than you would a place like music city for example. But, the growth can only go so far before you need to venture out to places like Montreal or Toronto. It’s also not too difficult to get gigs in Ottawa because there’s always a pub or a coffee house searching for a singer to play. I always say that Ottawa is a good base because it is calm, safe, and comfortable to develop myself as an artist at my own pace, but I need to keep looking outward if I want to achieve my wildest dreams.
Forgive me for the terrible transition, but speaking of wildest dreams…happy endings! What do the people need to know about “Happy Endings”?
It’s inspired by the main characters in Emily Henry’s New York Times bestselling novel, Book Lovers, who fall in love in the most refreshing of ways, and the “evil” city girl, who gets the fairytale ending she deserves, with a guy who just gets her, even though the rest of the world considers her “selfish.” I related to how Nora Stephens (main character) criticized and perceived herself as selfish, a term some people have used against me in the past when in reality, all I needed to do was surround myself with those who understood and allowed me to express myself the way I felt most comfortable. I tried my best to express this idea in Happy Endings, so if listeners are feeling alone, misunderstood, or insecure for being “themselves,” I hope this song reminds them that it’s okay to be unapologetically them, because the people who love them will do so no matter what, and those who never mattered anyway.
How is your upcoming work different from what you’ve done to date?
Simply put, my first three singles are love-themed, and without giving away too much, the next one will focus more on the haters and those who don’t want to see you succeed.
We are never short on haters in 2023, but I can also see you have a lot of support and people who are really starting to engage with what you’re doing. Which leads us to the audience and performance and shows. How does your stage show differ from your performance in the studio?
Being on stage is always different than the studio because it’s always a more raw performance. You don’t have time to overthink how you sang a word, or look back at a mistake you just did because if you do that, you are done for and can potentially ruin the rest of your show. So, obviously, performance is something more organic and natural, and it’s amazing to see the feedback from the audience live in front of you. On the flip side, being in the studio allows for these mistakes, and repeating something until it evolves and takes on a different life is a very cool process, because you can walk in thinking you’re going to come out of it singing something a specific way, but it can end up being something else as cool or maybe even better than that what you initially had in mind.
This is the part of the interview where I totally lose focus and tangent away…5 Desert Island Albums you can’t go without and why:
Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” and “Evermore” albums because they are simply timeless, with amazing folk tales like lyrics that will transport you to a different time and place, and sounds that will transport you to a place of meditation, serenity, and happy calmness.
More fives…Where are you in 5 years?
In 5 years I hopefully have 2 or 3 albums under my belt that have achieved a prominent level of recognition in the industry with an established fanbase that is still growing. I will also hopefully have toured a few times and opened for important people in the music industry. Hopefully, my face will have been on a billboard once or twice and I want to be the first Lebanese artist to play the Grand Ole Opry. I have an audience that looks forward to me putting out new music and I can finally live out of doing what I love, which is writing, singing, and playing live music.
What is the dream, endgame scenario for Raphaela?
I mean, obviously, the ultimate dream is to hopefully be a recognized artist touring internationally and to make Lebanese people back home proud of me, and to be acknowledged as having made an impact and contributed to the pop/country genre in a significant way.
KEEP GOING because I don’t see why not! You have a new fan here. Please tell the people where to find you, what you have coming up, and whatever else you want them to know:
I can be found on most social media platforms (mostly IG, Facebook, and TikTok) and I am currently working on two singles that I will release in the summer months.
YouTube: Raphaela Nehme – YouTube
Official Website: Raphaela | Official Website (raphaelaofficial.com)